I’ll never forget sitting in my middle school history class the first time I learned that Christopher Columbus was not the first human to set foot in America. I was even more shocked to hear from my teacher that Columbus was not even trying to get to America, and that he also enslaved the natives that he met. This was counter to the cute little “Sailed the ocean blue” stories I heard in elementary school and the dominant narrative that’s been told countless times to children since. It was the first time I was fascinated by history class and actually wanted to learn more.
This lesson was interesting. It defied norms and even felt a little rebellious. Now a history buff myself, I know that there are plenty of primary sources to show that the Columbus story is true, and yet I’d never been told it before. It was too off-center, countercultural, different from the mainstream; it was interesting.
Sociologist Murray S. Davis wrote in his essay “That’s Interesting” that “a theory is not considered great because it is true, but because it is interesting.” While truth is obviously important, facts and information are not enough to “affect the attention of an audience,” thereby interesting them. Murray defines interesting as “Something that stands out in attention in contrast to the routine, taken-for-granted world of everyday life.”
Essentially, for something to be engaging and memorable, it can’t fit the status quo. It has to defy the ordinary to grab attention and not release it. This is why I remember the Columbus story twenty years later and why my students remember when I dressed up as a WW1 soldier when they learned about trench warfare. It’s different. It’s contrary to the rest of school. It’s interesting.
Making School Interesting
Davis’ ‘theory of interesting’ has implications in school way beyond history class. One of the primary goals of every teacher is to make sure students leave equipped with knowledge and skills that they did not possess before their class. And perhaps the best way to do this is to engage students. High student engagement is an indicator for strong student success. Perhaps this is why the standardized model of education, the one-size-fits-all version of school that continues to dominate in the 21st century, fails so many students. School is often too familiar and predictable.
Students sit in the same seats every day, read from the same textbooks, and take the same tests. Even if the content their teachers are presenting is true and worthy of their time, it fails to be interesting to students. Engagement requires a disruption from the ordinary. This doesn’t mean teachers have to find an interesting spin on the content they teach every time they teach it. It means teachers should depart from the ordinary whenever possible.
Vary Instructional Strategies
I talked to an elementary teacher in Tennessee recently who was told by her principal that she should be finishing the sentence of the teacher next door when he walks in the room. Their curriculum is that scripted! It’s that predictable, standardized, and lacking the freedom to actually interest students (or those poor teachers for that matter). While this may be an extreme example, consistency is often thought of as king in education.
While of course consistency is important with students and there should be a standard for how they are treated, how they treat others, and how they are expected to work, the way learning happens does not need to be standardized. For instance, students should not be able to predict their every move in the classroom. Maybe some days direct instruction is used to present a big idea or theme, but on others class discussion can be used for this purpose. Activities and projects can be design based on student inquiry, and the work students do depends on the problems they are solving.
This creates an atmosphere with unexpected, hard-to-predict experiences. When I had my students interview World War II veterans and create biographies and documentaries based on their experiences, school looked very different for my students. The work of collaborating, completing authentic research, and using their school computers for something other than word processing was a departure from their everyday school life. It was interesting.
Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” was not a bestseller simply because her research proves that success is not actually based on talent, but rather on passion and perseverance. It wasn’t the truth of that theory that caused millions of people to purchase her book. Instead, it is because her theory runs counter to what we’ve been told about success. Media and professional sports might lead us to believe that talented people rise to the top. Duckworth defies that notion. Breaking the status quo is what people crave. It’s what engages consumers and what engages students. It’s interesting.
If we want school to be interesting, our pursuit should not be focused on getting everyone on the same page, but instead on students not knowing what page they will read from each day.
Davis, Murray S., That's Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of
Phenomenology , Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1:4 (1971:Dec.) p.309
Skinner, Ellen, et al. “What It Takes to Do Well in School and Whether I've Got It: A Process
Model of Perceived Control and Children's Engagement and Achievement in School.”
Journal of Educational Psychology, 1990, doi:10.12785/jeps.